The Net Delusion


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Book Review: The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov (Allen Lane, £14.99 stg)

I started reading this book on the day the people of Tunisia’s unprecedented uprising prompted their president Zine Abedine Ben Ali to flee the country and end his twenty-three-year reign as dictator of the North African state. No sooner had Ben Ali been deposed when the uprising in Tunisia was being called a Twitter or Facebook revolution. It’s true that both platforms – and YouTube –played important roles in the dissemination of information about the protests, particularly in a country whose un-free press were both unwilling and unable to report them. It’s also true that some of the protestors undoubtedly used social media to co-ordinate, at least in part, some protests. And it was furthermore a fact that a small band of Tunisian digital activists had for several years been mounting an almost quixotic display of defiance against government censorship, corruption and terrifying police intimidation.

One of those activists Slim Amamou made grimly ingenious use of the non-utilitarian social networking platform Four Square, when he checked in at the Ministry of the Interior upon being arrested on the 6th of January. As soon as Ben Ali was gone, western newspapers, most of which had failed to evince the slightest interest in the uprising until only days before, were awash with comment pieces saying the revolution was brought about by a magical confluence of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Wikileaks. The fact that a people that had heaved under a tyrannical police state for decades, and saw opportunities in life thwarted by rampant corruption and youth unemployment rates of 30%, might finally have decided enough was enough, was clearly secondary.

Evgeny Morozov is a cyber-realist, a term he himself employs in The Net Delusion, a man who gives short shrift to the notion that technological innovations are in themselves enough to free subjugated peoples from tyranny. Even after Ben Ali’s flight Morozov chose to demur, pointing out that had the Tunisian uprising not been successful, those cyber-activists’ Pascalian wager publicised online might well have earned them fearful consequences. Of course, the same can be said of practically any uprising against authoritarian rule in history, but Morozov’s point is that technology works both ways as a tool of political organisation – it can entrap just as easily as it can emancipate, if not more easily.

Morozov takes aim at ‘cyber-utopians’ and ‘internet-centrists’, two groups of people prevalent in liberal Western societies that have an almost beatific faith in the power of technology and information to defeat totalitarian regimes and set oppressed people free. He even admits having briefly been among their number when gripped by enthusiasm for a so-called Twitter uprising by young disgruntled Moldovans against the re-election of the country’s Communist government in February 2009. It was during the so-called Green revolution, the revolt against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in Iran in June of that year, that Morozov found his scepticism in the liberating potential of technology confirmed.

As in Tunisia, Twitter proved to be an invaluable tool for spreading information about the protests in Iran, particularly abroad. There were glowing tributes to the brave new world of citizen-controlled information penned by the likes of Andrew Sullivan and Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times. But to be honest, even from an anecdotal point of view, the prevalence of Twitter among protesting Iranians should have been suspect. Most of the tweets emanating, seemingly from the Islamic Republic, were in English, which would call into question Twitter’s viability as an organising tool among most Iranians. Analysis by Sysomos, a social media analysing company, found only 19,235 Twitter accounts active in Iran on the eve of the election, while Al Jazeera’s fact checkers could confirm only sixty active accounts in Tehran during the protests.

As the protests fizzled out, the Islamic regime moved in with a particularly vicious roundup of those involved, using Twitter accounts to track people and photographs posted online to identify protestors. President Barack Obama had initially stated his reluctance to intervene, citing Washington’s notorious past forays in Iran, but the cover was blown when it was revealed that an e-mail sent by the State Department to Twitter persuaded them to suspend maintenance operations so that Iranians could continue to tweet. This e-mail, sent by Jared Cohen, a young tech advisor recruited from Silicon Valley by previous Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, was a major blunder, says Morozov, leading the Iranian authorities to believe that Twitter, far from being a neutral tool of communication, was part of a US conspiracy to destabilise the regime. It is this confluence of tech-industry advocates and policy-makers that Morozov identifies as the most dangerous aspect of the brave new world of digital activism, to which I will return later.

That the Iranian government made use of Twitter for its own ends should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the basic concept of communication, i.e. contact between two parties. Information flows in both directions after all. But some people – notably tech industry insiders and their cheerleaders in the Western media – are beholden to a view that repressive regimes will crumble when their peoples gain access to information via the internet. The reason for this is, I think, a crucial lack of dual perspective that comes partly from having little first-hand experience of totalitarian regimes, but mainly from an implicit assumption that the path to freedom lies via the English language. People of most large and influential countries are wont to see the world through their own lens and hear it through their own language. With English-speakers, however, this refraction is further distorted by the fact that English is the established lingua franca worldwide.

For this reason, few people in the United States saw it as suspicious that most of the tweets coming from Iran during the protests were in English – and grammatically impeccable English at that. Neither did it cross their mind that ‘false flag’ tweets might also be penned in English by collaborators of the Islamic regime to act as decoys. The United States likes to have client leaders who speak good English because they play well on TV in the West. Hence the corrupt and ineffectual Hamid Karzai’s learned accent honed at India’s Anglophone universities is a vital counterpoint to the menacing Taliban and Afghan warlords babbling away in their barbarous tongues. Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili was able to serially lie his way through the August 2008 war with Russia because he gave press conference in fluent English while the Russians fitted all too easily into the bad-guy role with their briefings delivered in the same language that served the Soviets so well during the Cold War. Saakashvili later became persona non grata in the West when it emerged that Georgia had, contrary to his claims, started the war, but in the short term he won the propaganda battle.

English, whether one thinks as the natural language of freedom and democracy or not, is as much the domain of big bad authoritarians these days as it is of Western Facebook users clicking to support Causes to save pandas and denounce Chinese rule in Tibet. Russia Today and Iran’s Press TV are established news channels broadcasting in English while China’s Xinhua does a similar job online. Authoritarian regimes, Morozov reminds us, are not the technical illiterates foiled by crafty young bloggers and tweeters of journalistic legend, but well capable of engaging technology to monitor online activity. China might be famous for its ‘Great Firewall’ but its surveillance is a great deal more nuanced than simply blocking undesirable websites. It employs data-mining to great effect and along with researchers at UCLA – yes, UCLA – it is developing image-annotation software that can make its millions of surveillance cameras smarter in analysing what it records.

There is also a tendency, as one journalist cited by Morozov says, for Westerners to seek their mirror image in countries that are wildly different to their own. Therefore liberal bloggers take on a disproportionate significance in regions such as the Middle East or China. Everyone online must be necessarily seeking that ‘information’ that will bring freedom of speech, democracy, Western values and liberal governments. Never mind that Iran, China and Russia, to name but three countries each have countless blogs devoted to rigidly nationalist points of view and support of their government’s policies. The right-wing blogosphere in the United States that threw up Birthers and propagated the ‘death panel’ myth ought to have demonstrated to the Quiet Americans of the State Department and Silicon Valley that there is nothing inherently ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ about online activity. Western digital policymakers have a tendency to see what they want in these societies, just as an overly serious cinéphile might privilege the films of Satyajit Ray at the expense of Bollywood musicals or Italian neo-realism instead of Italian sex comedies.

Morozov also correctly skewers the prevalent creed of ‘digital orientalism’, which leads to critiques of the internet by folk such asNicholas Carr and Andrew Keen, without considering that, if true, these effects might also apply to people living under totalitarian regimes. The internet could not possibly make people in China stupider; surely, for them it is a harbinger of enlightenment. Barack Obama, speaking to Chinese students in Shanghai in 2009, emphasised the liberating potential of information flows; speaking to students at the University of Virginia six months later, he preferred to speak of the internet as a weapon of mass distraction. The idea that bread and circuses might be as effective in defusing popular discontent in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes as they are in democracies, must be a queer one indeed to these folk. As Morozov wryly notes in his introduction:

‘While the Soviets could be liberated by waving the magic wand of blue jeans, exquisite coffee machines and cheap bubble gum, one can’t pull the same trick on China. After all, this is where all those Western goods come from.’

And if the fears associated with the internet by some commentators in the West – piracy, child pornography, identity theft, and the possibility of child abduction – are well founded, surely they must be in places such as Russia and China too?

* * *

Ridley Scott’s famous Mac ad for Apple might have been a parody of Orwell’s 1984 but these days major tech launches have an eerily demagogic atmosphere, with a corporate figurehead such as Steve Jobs or Steve Balmer unveiling a new product in front of massive screens demonstrating the wonders of the thing to an audience of mostly admiring tech-industry insiders. The launches are often accompanied by bold pronouncements of the product’s implications for future generations. This, as Morozov points out, is one of the oldest tricks in the entrepreneur’s book and he documents a series of outrageous claims made for new inventions throughout history such as the telegraph, air travel, radio and television. Early advocates of each of these innovations made optimistic predictions about their effects that failed spectacularly to materialise. Of course information technology and its manifold innovations over the past four decades have had resounding effects on societies and daily life and will continue to do so but it may not always be quite the way these chino-clad Marinettis believe.

One can forgive people whose domain of expertise is technology for not having the most finely tuned understanding of international geo-politics and Morozov certainly steals a march on them in having expertise that straddles both fields – hisNet Effect blog for Foreign Policy has been the testing ground for many of the ideas contained in The Net Delusion. But it is when Western policymakers (and here, Morozov really means American) place far too great a faith in the advice given to them by people whose purview extends little further than technology that things begin to get dangerous. The fiasco of Haystack, a much-trumpeted software developed after the 2009 protests that was to allow Iranians to access banned websites, is a case in point. The software was fêted in the Western media and was slated to receive a US-export licence to circumvent sanctions on Iran when testing revealed it to be fatally flawed, flaws, which, had they been undetected, might have proved to be literally fatal to Iranian end-users.

What Morozov proposes is simply a more nuanced approach to policy regarding helping dissidents living under authoritarian regimes, that each case be tackled with customised care, rather than the one-size-fits-all approach that currently predominates. Initiatives such as ‘blogging schools’ run and funded by Western foundations in Russia and other countries are foolhardy measures to take. Providing bloggers with censorship-circumventing software might, on the face of it, be invaluable help but could ultimately endanger those bloggers should their rulers outstrip the West in tech-savviness. Neither does Morozov have much time for the idea that access to information is in itself a guarantor of impending freedom; he dismisses the idea that an opening of communication channels and the broadcasts of Radio Free Europe brought down the Soviet Union and its satellite Eastern Bloc regimes – he correctly points to the crumbling economic structure of the USSR, which forced Gorbachev’s hand, and to Moscow’s unwillingness to put down popular demonstrations with force, as it had done in the past.

Cyber-utopianism has its roots in a number of fashionable theories that arose in the immediate post-Cold War period, theories that were as triumphalist as they were misguided and which have now being largely deflated. Among them are Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History – which, in the aftermath of 9/11 and global Jihad, even Fukuyama has conceded was overly optimistic – and Thomas Friedman’s famous paean to the liberating potential of capital and consumerism, The Lexis and the Olive Tree. Friedman was another cheerleader for the West, who was fond of his bons mots and utterly convinced that the only way forward for any society lay through the spread of the free-market word. His most celebrated pithy one-liner, affirming there had never been a war between two countries that had a McDonalds, was history by the time of the NATO war on Yugoslavia in 1999 and the economic crisis brought about by rampant deregulation of financial services has left Friedman’s reputation forever in tatters among anyone with a brain.

The disobliging demands of international realpolitik have also dented the idea that America, or the West, might be unanimously in favour of the internet freeing everyone. While the State Department might have been very active in providing dissident bloggers in countries such as Russia, China and Iran with support, it has been much less so in countries run by its allies, namely Tunisia, Egypt, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. The risible double standards came to a head in the past week where Vice-President Joe Biden, who had previously called Julian Assange a ‘high-tech terrorist’, denied Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was a dictator. All this happened as Egypt became the first country ever to block off the entire internet over-night; Washington, which only eighteen months earlier, took the effort to intercede with Twitter to help Iranian protestors, declined to take its Egyptian ally aside and explain that this might not be such a good idea.

The US government’s vindictive response to Wikileaks and efforts to prosecute anti-globalisation protestors for helping people evade arrest via Twitter at the 2009 G20 summit in Pittsburgh also make it difficult for its pleas for net freedom to be taken too seriously. The rise of draconian laws penalising file-sharing, such as France’sHadopi, drafted at the behest of the entertainment industry, could also provide a handy smokescreen for governments wishing to suppress online dissent. And when companies such as Facebook take such a cavalier attitude towards protecting the private data of its users, will it be possible to seriously decry companies that operate similar practices in countries such as Russia or China?

It may be that Evgeny Morozov is a shade too cautious – that activists who use the internet to organise in authoritarian countries are aware of the risks they run and, in cases such as the Tunisian revolution, are willing to throw caution to the wind to make that leap forward. They are unlikely to be the same well-meaning ingénues living in liberal societies – the ‘slacktivists’, who fulfil their political duties, sitting on their sofa, tapping away on their MacBook. But Morozov’s caution is understandable, given the fact he is one of the few geopolitical commentators in the West to have grown up in a country of limited freedoms, Belarus, which Alexander Lukachenko has ruled with an iron fist since his election as President in 1994. Unlike many such people that have come before him, Morozov has little time for the fetishisation of freedom as a political tool. He is as critical of the US government on Wikileaks as he is of China and Russia and in a field such as technology that is too often populated by breathlessly hyperactive voices his is a welcome sober one.

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9 Responses

  1. William Wall

    February 1, 2011 1:17 pm

    Really interesting review. Thanks. Confirms a lot of what i feel about ‘cyber-activism’. It’s just another tool – not a miracle weapon.

  2. Pope Epopt

    February 1, 2011 2:08 pm

    Let us not forget that the biggest promoters of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions have been Goldman Sachs and other speculators in food commodity futures and derivatives thereupon. Without their helpful (and murderous) driving up of prices and the consequent drowning of more people in the Arab world below the breadline, it’s doubtful that the push would have happened now. Behind the revolt lies years of dangerous and stubborn work by trades unions, civil society activists and exiles.

    In terms of media, Al Jazeera, with a conventional ‘push’ approach to information, but with a strong marshalling of a diversity of sources including social media, has been more important in mobilising the Arab multitude than FB etc.

    I would more or less agree with the representation of Morozov’s position in the review above. Let’s not forget that the biggest social media are private companies, and what they give with one hand they can take away with the other, as we saw with the case of Wikileaks funding.

    Consider also that these wells can be poisoned. You can all work out how.

  3. John Green

    February 1, 2011 5:56 pm

    Excellent review, Oliver, and I can’t add anything to it or to William & PE’s comments except to be pedantic: The Lexis and the Olive Tree? That’s the nerdiest Freudian slip I’ve ever seen.

  4. Pope Epopt

    February 2, 2011 10:21 am

    Only a bit of fun, Oliver. As someone who could easily claim the prize for the worst proof-reader in the world, I’m in no position to throw stones.

    A great review of an important book. Thank you.